2011 Harvest Report
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Encouraged by our sleeping barrels and hibernating vines we winemakers slow down in winter. Like a fireside trance it’s easy to feel cocooned by rain beating on roofs, or falling in great sheets across the Flats and out to a granite grey sea.

Winter would have been a peaceful time for winemakers once - a time for unhurried blending and sleeping in; a time for food like cassoullet and venison potjie.

These days, unfortunately, there’s a gnawing irritation in the back of our minds, keeping the stress levels topped up – it’s that shedfull of wine that needs to be sold; it’s those tanks that need to be bottled before summer arrives.

Sometimes, about halfway through a bottle of red you forget about that shed, and the exchange rate and the overseas agent who refuses to pay you. Then winter feels good and solid like the foundation you can build the rest of your seasons on.

This state fades with the edgy pulse of spring – like the vibrations of a tuning fork struck against an empty stainless steel tank.

Glare arrives. You notice it bouncing off the aeroplane wing as you return home from Russia or China or somewhere equally as challenging.

Subtle changes in wind direction bring new smells like the warm easterly laced with Buchu in the mornings off the Helderberg.

This season there was a real ambivalence to spring. The rejuvenation felt sluggish, because we knew we hadn’t had enough winter rain. We sensed soil moisture was depleted, and the moisture probe readings reflected that.

Between July and October last year the recorded rainfall was 80 mm less than the long-term average figure. This equates to 75% of the long-term average, which means it was a very, very dry winter.

Areas east of Cape Town, especially in the Overberg, were the worst affected. The winter rain seemed to be stopped by Sir Lowry’s Pass. The rain that made it to Grabouw and Elgin all fell there.

Dams in the Overberg just didn’t fill up properly. A similar pattern occurred to a lesser extent north of Wellington, but even in these regions dams were not filled properly and farmers had to go easy on the irrigation, resulting in lower yields for the co-ops.

And things weren’t much better on this side of the mountain. In Stellenbosch the average rainfall was less than the long-term average in every month between July 2010 and February 2011, except October and November; but these increases were generally so small across the Western Cape as to be insignificant.

Before summer fully warmed this season, that new arching sun was already commanding wind off the ocean, ruffling awake the fleshy-green crowns of vineyards and mirroring the wavy sea in swelling hills of wheat. Despite the drier soil everything grew well.

Spring blew in with a strong southeaster. But although it buffeted incessantly for months, it was without the horrendous gusts of 2009 and 2010 that snapped trellis poles or blew bakkies over in Long Street.

And it remained very dry. Nothing significant fell in January and February in Stellenbosch. The weather station at Nietvoorbij records 4.5 mm and 4.4 mm for January and February respectively. This pattern repeated itself across inland areas like Robertson, Breedekloof and further north.

In Elgin, usually an area that enjoys significant rain over the growing season, only 31.5 ml was recorded against a 42 year long-term average of 93.1ml. That is only 33% of the long-term average. So no rot in Elgin this year, and a really great vintage.

However, in Elim 36.3 mm of rain fell in February alone, which explains why the area had to battle fungus and rot this year.

The long days of summer heat coloured the ripening fruit rapidly and totally. Colours across the board in reds are great this year. All the while, the continuous southeaster smashed the swells flat in False Bay. It was an unhappy summer for surfers.

The wind measurement data was significant this season for the amount (or accumulated volume) of wind that blew. December in particular was extremely windy and the volume of wind recorded was significantly greater than long-term averages. Often the wind didn’t die at night during December, which is unusual.

Vineyards planted out of the lee of the wind, in exposed areas were pummelled by the wind causing stress, while those on protected slopes (out of the wind) suffered sunburn and heat damage. But luckily, for many vineyards the worse wind came at the right time not to cause extensive damage at flowering or later after veraison.

Every now and then a baked-earth Berg wind gathered in the Karoo and came rattling over the escarpment smelling of old windmill grease. It sucked the life from vines leaves, beating down surrendering tendrils and depressing me on my vineyard trips.

We all nursed the thirsty soldiers through this summer, dripping life through irrigation pipes. Every now and again, stealing a worrying glance over our shoulder at the puckering dams, the low levels of which we haven’t seen for a few years.

Our traditional January heat wave arrived slightly later than usual and was followed up by a second blast of heat on the 27th of February when the temperature recorded at Nietvoorbij hit 37 degrees celsius.

For some reason (and I am still trying to get my head around this) the heat wave didn’t do what it normally does and force a corresponding spike of sugar accumulation, leaving tannin ripeness lagging.

In fact, a stand out characteristic for all areas has been small, concentrated red berries with wonderfully ripe tannin. Tannin ripeness kept up magnificently. On average we picked our reds (across all varieties) a whole degree lower than in 2010.

On the Helderberg in Stellenbosch Average Maximum Temperatures (AMT) for January and February were 31.3 degrees celsius and 32.25 degrees celsius respectively, pushing up the average temperatures to 24.4 degrees celsius and 25.34 degrees celsius for these two important ripening months.

Similar to the station at Nietvoorbij, this represents average temperatures over 2.5 degrees celsius higher than long-term averages. That’s a really significant number and indicates what we all experienced – a warm, high-tempo vintage.

An interesting detail the maximum average temperature data reveals is that it was warmer on the Helderberg in January and February than in Paarl, Robertson or Breedekloof. This may be because these slopes missed out on the cooling effect of the southeaster this year.

In fact our mountain vineyards in the Breedekloof showed the lowest AMT of all the other inland areas. There were often days when driving from Elim to the Breedekloof that the temperatures increased by around 80 degrees celsius as I passed through Stellenbosch and Paarl, but then dropped again by 50 degrees celsius as I got through the tunnel and onto the alluvial valley floor around Rawsonville.

As usual Elim was a different story altogether. Because of the consistently strong, moist southeasters which blew incessantly this year, Average Maximum Temperatures for January and February were 25.24 degrees celsius and 25.8 degrees celsius respectively, resulting in correspondingly lower average temperatures of 20.9 degrees celsius and 22.18 degrees celsius.

Like other cooler areas (Elgin in particular), the white varieties are brilliant, showing intensity and elegance.

A vine spends about 50% of its energy reaching skywards. If it is continually buffeted by wind, it gets upset and switches from vegetative growth to concentrating on reproductive issues like making the most delicious tasting fruit possible. In the wind it does this with an intensity of purpose that is reflected in the eventual wine.

And now suddenly the pause of autumn, like an intake of breath, pulls you up.

You look at your hands properly for the first time in months and wonder if the purple stains will stay ingrained in the leathery creases this year.

A sea fog from the south saturates the breeze with the smell of seaweed. Overnight it swings rampantly around to the north like it did on Tuesday this week, with teasing grey clouds.

Now the curtain of early evenings promises the relief-soaked applause of Cape rain on roofs again.

Sometimes it feels like seasonal rhythm is all we have left to tie us to life. I guess that’s why it makes sense to eat seasonal fruit and veggies.

Do an experiment this year. After avocado season, try not to eat avos until they arrive again in April next year. It’s a tough call, especially when you want to steal a piece of your kid’s pizza, piled high with avos. But, if you can hold back, the first taste of ripe avo next year will never have tasted so delicious.

Winemaking is not as easy a life as it once may have been. It’s a cut-throat business right now. Wineries are struggling to survive. Salaries don’t reflect the hours and intellect required to make it all work.

But, because our work ties us inextricably to the cycles of seasons, we can’t help feeling extremely privileged to be doing what we do.

We can’t help notice the shadow of autumn, because we’ve got malolactic fermentations to worry about. Our internal rain gauges were continually guessing and adding up the drops of rain as they fell in winter. Then the sexy angst of spring pushed addictive adrenalin through us. The harvest loomed and the days of the 2011 season have unfolded like an adventure.

I think the wines will reflect the wild ride. Those of us who were lucky enough to have a handle on our irrigation, and healthy vineyards to work with, will make some really exciting wines, maybe some of the best this century.

Comments on the harvest by other CWG Members:

Peter Finlayson (28.2.2011)
Timing has been of the essence and this year with Pinot noir being the first grapes to the cellar! My analogy for 2011 is that of sailing a racing yacht in ever changing strong winds and turbulent seas. All manner of tricky weather and opportunistic bugs have been waiting in the wings to upstage this event.

Jeff Grier (7.3.2011)
We had an early start, on the 10th of January, as you would expect in a hot vintage. As usual we celebrated the new vintage with our St. Vincent’s day celebration. Jean Louis Denois our bubbly guru was out from France and great fun was had by all. Some of our staff and guests ended up with a grappa tasting which was instigated by the younger members of our winemaking team.

The harvest has proceeded smoothly albeit at a pace due to the above average temperatures. The conditions have been ideal for the generation of solar energy and our 2011 harvest has been largely powered by free electricity.

Teddy Hall (10.3.2011)
Most grapes in by now. The grapes are healthy with bunches and grapes slightly smaller than average, leading to a bit smaller crop. Rain stayed away during harvesting days making it an easy harvest. The Chenin blanc quality is very good and the reds show sufficient colour at this stage.

Carel Nel

Very good colour on the red wine and Ports with intense rich fruit flavours. The ripening is slower than the last year and riper tannins.

Danie Steytler
The winter of 2010, brought very little rain. June was wet, but July and August rainfall was well below the average. Sufficient cold temperature was experienced. Good rains in November resulted in good canopy growth.

After a below average rainfall during the winter of 2010, we enjoyed a cool summer, with some rain until late November, after which we had strong winds in December and heat waves in January and February.

Moisture reserves in the soil were below average, but the rains in October and November resulted in the growth of good canopies.

A late harvest was expected, but the windy dry conditions of December, together with the heat waves and drought of January and February, brought the harvest forward in the Stellenbosch, Paarl and Malmesbury areas.

This heat wave at the end of January and February, could rob the white wines of flavour and aroma, but it is still too early to see.

The drier conditions could result that the red wines of Stellenbosch, Paarl and Malmesbury, be of exceptional good quality this year, having a lot of concentration of flavour and colour, due to the smaller berries of the fruit.

Ripening tempo is slow this year and there is less pressure on us winemakers to bring this smaller crop in, and we have more time to do more effort, to make better wine.

Winemakers and viticulturists are satisfied with the quality of the grapes that have been crushed so far.

Grapes are generally healthy with good analyses, and at this stage the quality of red cultivars in particular appears to be excellent.

After two small harvests in the Stellenbosch, Paarl and Malmesbury areas, there was a lot of reserves built up in the vines, and the farmers were optimistic that the 2011 harvest would be a good one, but we received no periodic rains in December until March, and the harvest seems to be disappointingly small due to not much moisture reserves in the soil.

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